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Mary Chain’s Phil King: When William gets going, an electrical storm hits you

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Picture by Andy von Pip

PORTO | Phil King was the only member of The Jesus and Mary Chain that bridged the gap: He was there, in 1998, when the band exploded and also when they regrouped in 2007. Five years ago he left to join his former band Lush. ‘We were going for the last victory lap, with garlands and all that, but it didn’t work out that way.’ The man with the best hair in indie rock looks back: ‘The Reid brothers created a world of their own in a little bedroom in East Kilbride and arose from that like two big black butterflies.’

Hester Aalberts | Photographs by William Reid, Andy Von Pip, Rachel Conti, Simon Fletcher, Matt Anker & Phil King

How are you holding up in this Corona madness?

I’m okay. Portugal, where I live, has a so-called intelligent lockdown. As a picture editor for a London based music magazine I normally spend three weeks out of four working remotely anyway. Besides, it’s nice and quiet here and our house is right by the sea.

You live in Portugal but you were born and raised in London.

Yeah. I grew up in the suburbs, about ten miles from the centre. But it might as well have been five hundred miles. I was too young to go to London on my own, so I used to lock myself in my room playing records. My father raised me and, as of the age of fourteen, I was allowed to go to concerts. Bands like The Vibrators, The Clash and X-Ray Spex would play in pubs close by in the suburbs. Exciting times!

How did you get involved with bands from East Kilbride?

As London was a kind of a hub, a lot of musicians moved there. So did Jim and William. I joined The Servants and our manager worked for Creation Records. He did the PR for bands like Felt, Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

I became friends with Douglas Hart and we both lived in the same squat called Disgracelands. Colm from My Bloody Valentine helped Douglas break into the place. Looking back, a lot of us musicians lived in squats in London. I worked in a sandwich bar at lunchtimes to have some cash-in-hand and ate leftovers at the end of the day.

With Lush – Picture by Matt Anker

You’ve been in lots of bands: See See Rider, The Servants, Felt, Biff Bang Pow!, Apple Boutique, Lush, JAMC. Why?

Bands break up! People always ask why they split up. Personally I always wonder how some bands last so long. Quite miraculous, when you think of it: all these different people thrown together, mostly from dysfunctional backgrounds and usually lacking a grounded upbringing.

How did you end up auditioning for The Jesus and Mary Chain?

That was through Douglas again. They needed a guitarist and I already knew quite a lot of people by that time: it was a small circle. I didn’t get the job though. They picked Ben Lurie instead. According to Jim I was rejected by the toss of a coin. William claims my shoes were too pointy.

When did you meet again, after that failed audition?

In 1992 I joined Lush. We did Lollapalooza and The Mary Chain were also on the bill. Not that we hung out or anything: Jim and William were never the sort of people to hang out. As Murray already told you, they used to spend all their time in their bedroom. Later, while touring, they still wouldn’t go out. After a show they usually went straight to their hotel room. It almost felt like the hotel room was their movable bedroom.

Phil King and Jim Reid at Lollapalooza in Los Angeles – 1992

So how did you become a member of the band?

Their manager at the time called me and asked if I wanted to become their bass player. This was not long after Chris [Acland] died, the drummer of Lush, so initially I declined. I had been in mourning for quite some time. But I put the phone down and thought ‘This is The Mary Chain we’re talking about!’ And besides, it would also help to take my mind off things. So I called him back.

I came in during the Munki promotional tour, without a proper audition. I turned up at the Drugstore, their studio, and after we played a couple of songs Jim said: ‘You know these songs better than we do. Let’s go to the pub.’ Looking back, I think we spent more time in that pub across Amelia Street than we ever did rehearsing. But then again, that’s kind of how they are: chaotic and brilliant at the same time. When working with William, you never know what’s going to happen.

All their albums feel truly authentic. Do you agree and what is your view on that?

I do agree. Many independent bands got signed by a major label and would get eaten up or get commercialised. Everything good about them was stripped way. But Jim and William, as brothers, had the strength to defend themselves. They seldom miss a trick and always see what’s going on. Nothing gets past them. So, although they were signed by Warner, they never made any concessions.

Were you a fan of The Mary Chain before you joined them?

Oh God, yes! They were such a cool band. When Upside Down and Never Understand came out I bought them straight away. I loved them right from the start.

Courtesy of Phil King

You were there, in 1998, when things got bad and eventually exploded.

The atmosphere might have been bad, but I had nothing to gauge it against. I didn’t know anything different. And I was well prepared by the press that they didn’t get along. It seemed like normal to me, which in itself was quite abnormal!

Tell me about that last gig, when audience got their money refunded.

The day before we played in San Diego. On the way back Ben and William at first, and then Jim also, had a huge row. The tour manager intervened, pulled them apart and was annoyed in the way that a teacher would be with some naughty school children. Back in LA, Jim and Ben stayed up drinking all night. So during that fatal gig, Jim was away with the fairies and kept singing ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ over and over again. That made it hard for us to figure out where we were in a song. So we kept breaking down and starting the next song, but the same thing would happen again and again. After about fifteen minutes of this Nick [Sanderson] and I looked at each other, signalled that we had had enough to each other and just walked off. So, actually, it wasn’t William who left first. Backstage, on a closed-circuit screen, we could see what was going on: the curtains being pulled down and an angry crowd throwing things at the stage.

That must have been terrible.

It does prepare you for the worst. William left and we continued the tour without him. The next day we played at The Supper Club in San Juan Capistrano – to an audience seated at tables eating their steak dinners! – and we weren’t sure William would show up. His amp was all set up with ‘JESUS’ written across the front of the speaker, waiting for him. But he didn’t show up, so we had to cut out all his songs, like Cracking Up and I Hate Rock ‘n’Roll . We had to do Reverence for about fifteen minutes to be able to play the alloted time.

We continued the tour and it was one disaster after another. Nick dislocated his shoulder in Texas and we had to borrow the drummer from the support band, Mercury Rev. And there was this show in Providence, Rhode Island, meant to be the last of the tour, where the promoter ran off with the money. The show didn’t happen and the band and crew nearly ended up in a fight with the cast of Riverdance in the hotel bar.

Musicians often have recurring dreams of gigs going totally wrong. Well, The Mary Chain prepares you for that!

Phil King with Bernadette Denning – Picture by Andy von Pip

After the break-up, what happened?

The Reids still had their Drugstore studio. Nick and I were supposed to do some recording with William, but spent most of the time in the pub. We never finished any songs. It was rather chaotic. We would spend more time chasing him around the control room to get money for a cab home than anything. Earlier on tour, in San Francisco, William had met his future wife Dawn, so soon after he moved to America.

Then you joined Jim.

Right. That’s how Mark [Crozer] came into the picture. He was our agent and also did some guitar teching for us. As a big Ride fan he brought in drummer Loz Colbert. So for a while it was Jim, myself, Loz and Mark. When our manager tried to get some American dates, Coachella suggested that The Mary Chain should resurface. Tom Waits had dropped out and they got offered the spot.

Marc Crozer and Phil King – Picture by William Reid

During the break do you think Jim and William missed JAMC?

Sure. It must have been a big hole for both of them. Especially after William left. There is something about William’s playing … it just gives it that edge. And that was lacking without him.

Did you sometimes feel caught in the middle?

I tried not to be. Alan McGee used to say: ‘Don’t get caught in an argument between those two, because you’ll get torn to shreds.’ I guess this prepared him for working with Oasis later on. But I once did get involved, during that disastrous last year. We played on a racetrack in Imola in Italy and there was this Italian superstar, Vasco Rossi, who hadn’t played for years. It was huge, like Woodstock! His hardcore fans didn’t want to see any of the support acts and showed their displeasure by lobbying missiles at them. Ash played before us and came back like the walking wounded, as if they had just been choppered out of ‘nam. When we came on people started to throw things at us too. William lost his patience and walked up to the microphone saying something like ‘I hate your country’ and ‘I’m never coming back here!’ Things exploded. We had stuff thrown at us before, but normally we had time to get out of the way – as you could see the object arc over the crowd. But this time, exactly at that point, the lighting guy switched on the ‘London Fog’, that charactistic pea souper used on stage by The Mary Chain. Bottles, cans and coins were coming at us through the smoke. William and Jim had this big fight afterwards and stupidly I got right in the middle of that.

How do you look back on touring with The Mary Chain?

Well, for Jim and William, being on a bus together, that claustrophobic atmosphere …. During the Psychocandy tour, to avoid any potential disagreement, they travelled separately from the rest of us.

Tourbus on the way to Holland – Picture by Simon Fletcher

It’s funny on stage though. They can’t really win, because if Jim doesn’t look at William people presume they aren’t talking to each other. But if Jim does go up to William and whispers something in his ear they’ll think he is having a go at William. But I guess the fans love all that drama anyway. It makes it more of an experience than the usual humdrum gig.

Now you’ve brought up the subject of touring … Did you know that their current tour manager, Simon Smith, used to be the drummer of The Wedding Present? He was being very modest about it and never even brought it up. But William used to complain that The Mary Chain had been on Top of the Pops only once, while their very tour manager had been on it maybe six or seven times! Quite ironic, really.

Tour manager Simon Smith (second from left) from The Wedding Present

One more touring anecdote: Jim has a brilliant voice, but it isn’t the loudest of voices. Before he got his in-ears, he would often get drowned out by us onstage. He says he is deaf in his left ear from William’s guitar. He would often quit and yell ‘Stop!’, because he lost track of things – and couldn’t hear himself – and the song would ground to a halt. Funnily enough it almost became normal after awhile. I did feel though for someone who guested with us and didn’t expect it. When we played at the Royal Festival Hall in London once Jim stopped Just Like Honey around four times – and the poor girl who was singing backing vocals was shaking like a leaf.

The Psychocandy tour in 2016 would be your last one …

It was an amazing tour. I switched from bass to guitar, operating these big fuzz pedals that sounded like a jet plane taking off! As soon as we switched them on the audience would just … lift up! They were like rabbits, caught in our headlights.

About to enter the stage – Bilbao 2015 – Picture by Simon Fletcher

I used to have William so loud in my monitors that the monitor guy would go: ‘Are you sure?’ Especially when William gets going in, for example, Reverence, it’s like this electrical storm hits you. During this tour we had these Shin-ei, fuzz wah pedals that hadn’t been used since the eighties. They were very hard to operate. In fact I met Kevin Shields [My Bloody Valentine] in Camden High Street and told him we were using the pedals. He told me he could never get the hang of them, but that William was a genius with them. William was very proud when I told him!

Apart from the Reids, you were the only one returning after the break. Were things different?

Well, obviously they were older, wiser and more relaxed. And they returned in such a big way. Coachella was truly amazing, in the middle of the desert, with the mountains on the horizon, the sun going down and these huge old school Hollywood lights behind us.

When we started Just Like Honey, with Scarlett Johansson on stage, the bass drum going and the gang of Paparazzi photographers snapping away, you could actually hear it echoing back off the mountains.

It was incredibly hot during the soundcheck in the morning and I remember Scarlett Johansson looked at us and said : ‘My God, you guys are pasty!’ We were too polite to respond, but she wasn’t very tanned herself, to be honest with you!

Jim Reid and Scarlett Johansson – Coachella

You were artistically involved in the making of Damage and Joy.

Well, I played on one song. I was at work and got a call. The Reids wanted me to come over to the studio to play a guitar part on Black and Blues that William couldn’t work out. This was down at Youth’s home studio by Clapham Common. William said: ‘It’s not my style. Can you come in?’

So I took the afternoon off. It literally took thirty minutes and that was it. Actually, this would be my last involvement with the band, because afterwards William had some health problem and was not allowed to travel to Japan. And thereafter I joined Lush, my old band that regrouped in 2016. That makes this picture William took of me in the studio that day very special to me.

Picture by William Reid

So you left The Mary Chain. Why did you choose for Lush?

Lush had ended with the horrible tragedy of our drummer Chris taking his own life. So with the reunion I felt we were going for the last victory lap, basically. With garlands and all that. But unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. I even ended the tour a few shows earlier than expected, for my own self preservation. That’s how bad it got. But I prefer to leave that can of worms unopened. After all, four years have passed and I’ve moved on now. The positive side of it all is that I get to see my family a lot more. When I was away touring, sometimes I questioned why I was devoting all of my time to strangers, spending lots of time in hotel rooms and backstage areas, when I should be home with my family. After all, it’s precious time that you can never get back.

Are you still in contact with The Jesus and Mary Chain?

Yeah, William calls me occasionally. Jim doesn’t like chatting on the phone really. They are not ones for small talk, neither of them. Every now and then I e-mail with Brian and Mark. The band played here in Porto last year and I went on stage and did Reverence with them.

Filmed by Sergio Costa

How did you end up in Porto?

In the late eighties I put out a record under the name Apple Boutique on Creation. Very under the radar. My partner Marta, who is from Portugal, had seen the clip of the song Love Resistance.

When she was in London I was DJ-ing and she asked me to play it. I was startled by that question. That’s how we got together. We moved to Porto after we had our two children. I still like London, but here we have a house overlooking the sea. I love Porto and I don’t think I’ll ever move back to England.

Phil’s last show with JAMC – Miami 2016 – Picture by Rachel Conti

What is your favorite song by The Jesus and Mary Chain?

I’d have to say Darklands. During that song I look at Wiliam and think ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ These lyrics, the song … , but also the melody. I used to say to him that he’s like an ‘idiot savant’. He answered: ‘I like the savant bit, but I am not sure about the idiot.’

I heard rumours that Jim might be working on an autobiography. I hope this is true, because Jim can be really funny. He has a wonderfully dry and mordant sense of humour – and takes no prisoners.

An autobiography would have to start in East Kilbride. Have you ever been there?

I have! I went to Murray Dalglish’s [The Mary Chain’s first drummer] hair salon. He recommended a shampoo to make grey hair more vibrant! He also warned me not to use too much, because I would turn into Mrs Slocombe! Afterwards we went for a walk and passed by the house on Angus Avenue where Jim and William grew up.

I thought it looked rather depressing.

Well, I guess that is the amazing thing, isn’t it? They created this world of their own in a little bedroom in East Kilbride and arose from that like two big black butterflies that flew into the world.

You recently picked up your guitar again after several years. What took you so long?

The guitar you’re refering to was a gift from William. He gave me this old Guild semi acoustic when I left. It had been sitting on the guitar stand for the last four years. But in this lockdown period people pick up things they have put off for a long time. So I dusted the guitar down, changed the strings and have since been playing a little.

My partner Marta always tells people I am retired. But I always say: “Hang on! Never say never again.”

Actually, Jim told me he’s working on new songs. Would you like to be a part of that, like with Black and Blues?

Absolutely! Jim, I’m available!

Guild semi acoustic guitar – gift from William

Check Rescheduled Darklands tour

2 REACTIES

  1. Thanks. Phil King has been a big hero of mine for some time and I love all his work. I would respond in Dutch but suck at it (though I did live in Utrecht for a little while!)

  2. Hahahha, no worries, William! We all speak English over here, as you will probably know. Phil is now a hero of mine as well! Thanks for your kind response.

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